Who Will Teach Congress to Behave?

Misbehaving parents and football players must learn to be civil—when will Washington learn?


To make sense of the vitriol, lack of cooperative spirit and just bad manners being displayed on Capitol Hill, look no further than Massachusetts.

It's not that the Bay State is unusually mean or even rude. Visitors flocking to the Cape, the Berkshires or Boston's North End will surely find friendly people. But recent news in Massachusetts demonstrates just how high our tolerance for—even celebration of—bad behavior has become.

The Boston Globe informs us that the Boston School Committee is drafting rules for basic civility at its public meetings. This is not a response to shouting and disruption by children, who by definition are still learning how to behave in public and how to adjudicate disagreements with honor and mutual respect. No, the school committee's actions are a sad response to the heckling and all-around disrespect shown by adults—parents and teachers—who have been unhappy with school closings and other matters before the committee. Disruptive students have been at the meetings, too, which makes it worse, since the lesson they are learning at the meetings is that it's acceptable to shout and be rude to display one's unhappiness with a public policy. One protestor last December yelled "liar" at Superintendent Carol R. Johnson. Was this individual merely parroting the behavior of Rep. Joe Wilson, who yelled, "You lie!" at the President of the United States during a live, nationally-televised speech in the House chamber? [See the month’s best political cartoons.]

Remarkably, some of the adult activists have not been shamed at the fact that they must be treated as recalcitrant children. The Globe quotes the teacher's union president, Richard Stutman, jokingly comparing the decorum rules to Stalinist Russia. That's not only an insult to the people who lived in the brutal dictatorial regime, but an insult to public education. Surely, teachers do not instruct their students that self-control and civility are akin to totalitarianism.

But if the school meetings aren't distressing enough, Massachusetts can look to its professional football team, the New England Patriots. The team recently signed Albert Haynesworth, whose behavior, on and off the field, was so poor that the Washington Redskins couldn't stomach him anymore. In sports, the bad boys are often given a pass if their on-field passes are complete. But Haynesworth—who was paid $35 million to play in 20 games and didn't always show up for practice because he didn't like the coach's defense strategy—became just too much for the ‘Skins, who traded him to the Patriots for a fifth-round draft pick. At least Haynesworth won’t be a double burden to the Pats, since Randy Moss, another behavior problem, left the team last year and announced Tuesday he would retire from the sport. Defenders note that Patriots coach Bill Belichick whipped Moss into shape. Haynesworth could be a heavier list; at one point, he was juggling four different legal cases against him even as he feuded publically with his coach.

We should expect more from members of Congress, who have been through campaigns and theoretically should know better. But the public—even as they deride the dysfunction and bad manners in the Capitol—are enablers, rewarding malcontented lawmakers with campaign contributions. Republican Wilson and former Democratic Rep. Alan Grayson, who famously accused Republicans of wanting people to die as a way of saving on health costs, were two of the biggest fundraisers last election cycle, with much of the cash coming from out of state. Grayson lost, but the message was clear: acting up is profitable. And both Democrats and Republicans are raising money off the recent uproar over Republican Rep. Allen West, a Tea Party movement favorite who sent an email to a colleague, Democratic Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, calling her "the most vile" member of the House. Wasserman Schultz had criticized West's approach to Medicare, although she did not name him in the floor speech that led West to accuse Wasserman-Schultz of not acting like "a Lady." [See a collection of political cartoons on the Tea Party.]

The Boston School Committee may be able to teach civility to adults who apparently never learned how to sit still and listen. And perhaps Belichick can control Haynesworth. Who will do the same for members of Congress?

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